Ancient Maya Social Evolution

Part II of III: Ideological foundation

The question I posed last week was how the ancients developed and sustained a common political structure and unified ideology that covered an enormous territory (Guatemala, Belize and southeastern Mexico) for over a millennia. I imagined how their political structure might have gotten started and described how it might have grown from small villages with a “chief” to cities with  divine kings, monumental architecture, hieroglyphic writing and a unique art style.

Again, my catalyst for imagining these developments is *Ancient Maya Politics: A political anthropology of the Classic Period 150-900 CE by anthropologist Simon Martin. He suggests that “Ideological mechanisms instilled a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ within the social body that prevented the Maya from developing states or empires.” Stitching together his comprehensive analysis with items from my databases, this is my attempt to plausibly imagine how that could have happened.

The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 BCE, but because new finds keep moving that date back, I’m going to imagine that around 2000 BCE groups of farmers living along the Gulf coast of southern Mexico began to explore the jungle territories south and east. The date is also reasonable to assume because the Olmec of Veracruz and Tabasco were creating stone monuments by 1600 BCE. Whatever motivated these farmers and families, it had to be serious because cutting a path through dense jungle and swamps to find a place to settle was difficult and dangerous. 

An ideology is a system of beliefs that attempt to explain the world, our place in it and how best to adapt or change it. Because a seemingly unique ideology always emerges from the way people before them lived and organized themselves, the Maya story had its roots in the values, ideas, rules, perceptions and lifestyles of those early maize farmers. 

As to the uniqueness of ancient Maya ideology, I imagine it developed rather quickly in response to the need to subsist and survive in the jungle. While they had inherited certain beliefs about the sun, moon, maize and rain deities and how their leaders negotiated with them, the environmental pressures imposed a more urgent and dramatic response, a radical change in worldview and lifestyle. 

Suddenly, these farmers had to adapt to seasons that alternated between extremes of relentless downpours with body-wrenching thunder and lightning strikes and droughts without surface water. The Peten jungle had no rivers, streams or lakes. Roofs had to be built, landscapes altered, cisterns and reservoirs dug to collect and hold enough rainwater to last through the dry season. With only stone tools and no wheels, planting required an immense effort of clearing tall trees with supporting buttresses, chopping and burning the dried wood, planting seeds with a stick and keeping watch over the plot to ward off animals. 

Certain trees and thorns were poisonous if touched, and many fruits and berries were toxic. Without knowledge of parasites and viruses, people were getting sick and dying for no apparent reason. They regularly dealt with insect bites and deadly snake bites. And jaguars and crocodiles would attack small children. We can imagine that life expectancy around that time hovered between the late forties and early fifties.    

Over the space of a few generations, the descendants of these early immigrants developed a great deal of knowledge about life in the jungle. From observation alone, they became acutely aware of and predicted the movements of the sun and moon. And because the night’s sky was lit brightly with billions of stars and the Milky Way, they kept track of them by name, gave them personalities and correlated them with patterns in everyday life. 

Survival in a hostile environment requires paying attention to everything that could possibly be harmful. Everything in the natural world, animate or not, was possessed of a spirit, so these had to be respected and offered gifts. Likewise, the forces of nature (rain, lightning, thunder, wind, hurricanes), which were considered to be supernatural beings. And significantly, interpersonal relationships, trading, warfare and everyday life had to be structured in accord with the perceived order demonstrated by the sky gods. Thus, the phrase “As above, so below.” Besides the responsibility to heal sickness and treat injuries, the shaman conjured ancestral spirits and negotiated with supernatural beings. 

While the outer trappings of their activity was ritual communing and communicating with the gods and deceased ancestors involving psychogenic drugs, trance dancing, bloodletting and outrageous behaviors, it was the subtext of these performances and their repetition that ramped up and over time cemented the Maya’s ideological beliefs. Because he was possessed of heightened powers, it was natural for the shaman to eventually assume the role of “Chief” in the Early Preclassic Period, “Lord” in the Late Preclassic and “Holy Lord” (Divine King) in the Classic Period.

Some of the formative, subtextual beliefs included: 

  • Everything in the natural world is either a god or inhabited by spirit.
  • The world was created by cooperating deities.
  • Gods are like men. They have personalities, likes and dislikes. They fight among themselves and need to be fed. They are brought into being and made present through conjuring.
  • Having created the world, the gods can end it on a whim. Take nothing for granted.
  • Juun Ixim, the Maize God, established and maintains the cycle of life—birth to death.
  • Blood is the source of life; ch’ulel, the “soul” or “spiritlives within it.
  • K’inich Ajaw, the Sun God, needs sacrificial blood to survive.
  • Time is cyclical; what happened before will come around again.
  • Supernatural beings and deceased ancestors are not elsewhere. For good or evil, they are here, active in everyday affairs.
  • Holy men effectively negotiate with the gods by giving them what they want.
  • The gods want respect, praise, sweat from labor and blood offerings. It sustains them.
  • When the gods are pleased the polity thrives.
  • Caves are sacred portals to the Underworld, the domain of demons that must be fed.
  • Life descends from deities in the sky. 

Ideological beliefs (“memes” in scientific terms) survive through repetition. In time, they become common knowledge—when they’re repeated by diverse sources, illustrated in stone, codified by being written and referenced in myth, song and storytelling. Sustained through generations, everyday people accept a belief as true. They will say “Everybody knows…” “It’s obvious…” Acting in concert with beliefs becomes second nature. Until they’re proven wrong. For instance, we now know that Christopher Columbus did not discover America. And Native American culture is not inferior to European culture. It’s just different.

* The book is an excellent text for those well read in the study of ancient Maya culture. It assumes a familiarity with Maya sites, hieroglyphic writing, monuments and social structure.


Next week Part III: Given the beliefs that set the stage for Classic period ideological expression, how did the office of village chief evolved to become a k’uh ajaw “divine lord.” And what kept the Maya from developing states or empires? 

Excerpt from:

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

(A band of traders paddle their way through a snake-infested, flooded forest. p. 249-251)

Aside from the dripping sounds, the quiet lasted about ten heartbeats. Thunder Flute stepped up on the bow beam. “Coxswains! Form a line! Tie the bows to sterns. Use two cords and tie the knots tight. Whatever happens, we must not get separated. When the trees get closer, keep your hands off the gunwales. Watch for snakes—in the trees and in the water. They are hungry and vicious. Yellow jaws and moccasins can climb into the canoes. When you use your paddles to fend off trees, watch and turn them over. If you hear little coughing sounds the yellow jaws are already too close. Keep your blades at hand.”

PADDLING TROUGH DARK AND FLOODED FOREST WAS SLOW and frightening, filled with annoyances—the drone of howler monkeys, spider webs the size of a man and damp clothing that pressed cold against the skin. Worst of all were the mosquitoes and biting flies. Without mud or smoke, we just had to endure them. It felt like the Chaakob were tormenting us, pouring dove rain, then otter, then turtle and otter again. They never let up. Pech, whose muscles and skin seemed to defy all torments, welcomed the rain saying we needed the water to rise. We didn’t say anything about the frequent scraping sounds and jolts that came from under the boats, but I wasn’t alone in wondering whether we were passing over the underbrush or if an underworld demon was complaining about our being there.

The trading assistant was right to worry about the tangle. The forest became so dense in places Thunder Flute led us around rather than between trees and brush. As warned, we saw plenty snakes—long black one, speckled racers and blunt-heads. Most common, were the green tree-snakes and water moccasins. In one place, Thunder Flute’s coxswain smacked the water with his paddle to deter one that was coming fast. I thought I saw a yellow-jaw hanging from a branch, but Thunder Flute picked it off and held it up to show us the bulging eyes and thin snout of a non-venomous cat-eye. On another tree, he showed us a moth bigger than his hand. Had he not coaxed it to move I wouldn’t have even seen it.

With purple sky still showing above the canopy, the lead canoe came alongside some leg-thick vines that stuck out of the water looking like the backs of serpents with their heads and tails in the underworld. Thunder Flute called for all stop. “We sleep here tonight! The vines point east and west. That way is west,” he said, pointing. “Tie the boats together and lash each one to a separate tree— not the vines. Because of the snakes, use only one cord on the tree—and keep an eye on it.”

“All night?” someone asked.

“All night!” Pech emphasized. We broke out some food and listened as he assigned the watch. “When it gets dark,” he said, “the eyes you will see are either crocodiles, owls or eagles.” You will hear noises. Mostly frogs, insects and howlers. Keep a weapon close at hand, even as you sleep…”

Thunder Flute knew I was good at drilling fire, so he volunteered me to come under his canopy and light the one torch he allowed. The tuft was damp but I finally got it going and set the torch in the holder on the bow. I returned to my position in the other canoe, huddled under a blanket, swatted mosquitoes and listened to the drip, drip, drip…

I was nearly asleep, when someone shook my shoulder. “I think you want to see this,” Pech called out. I sat up to a sight so amazing I rubbed my eyes to see if it was real. The flooded forest was ablaze with twinkling yellow lights, thousands of them, all around, high and low. Fireflies were common at Cerros, but these were as big as eyeballs. And so bright their twinkling was enough to reveal the trees and the other boats, even our faces. Wondrously, their reflections on the black water made it seem like they were in all three worlds at once. Pech caught one in his hands. “Pass this to Fire Eyes,” he said. “Our gift to him,” he said louder. “On this k’in, fifteen tunob past, he touched the Earth.”

He remembered! Or Thunder Flute could have told him.

As the others applauded, the wonder of the blinking light that filled my cupped hands with yellow light reminded me of my journey into the sky.

THE SOUND OF BRANCHES SCRAPPING HARD AGAINST THE bottom of the boat startled me awake. The crew was pushing off the trees with paddles, moving slowly through a fog that obscured the canopy. I couldn’t even see the last boat. We kept getting into thickets where we had to turn around and go another way, always watching the vines to keep us going west. Each time it happened it wasn’t just disappointing, it raised doubts that Thunder Flute and Pech could get us out of there. They told us to keep looking for broken pods, maize stalks, clothing, thatching or cording, anything that might indicate habitation, but there was nothing like it.

The second night on the water was much like the first—dripping from the canopy, an occasional snake, the persistent and maddening sound of frogs, fireflies and crocodile eyes.

The fog wasn’t as thick as the previous morning, but we still had to turn around three times. There’d been only two notable events that day. Within moments of Pech pointing to a bird calling waak-ko, waak-ko, a laughing falcon grabbed a snake off a branch. The other was when one of the bearers dropped his paddle in the water and it floated off. Thunder Flute had us all stop and wait while they tied a cord around the paddler’s waist so he could jump in and retrieve it. By nightfall, he complained of weakness, a sore throat and a dripping nose, irritations that would plague the rest of us for the next eight-to-ten days.


One Comment on “Ancient Maya Social Evolution

  1. Dad, You are so incredible at painting such a vivid picture of what it might feel like to live in the height of the Mayan civilization. Whenever I read this blog, your descriptions are immersive. That makes me wonder when they are going to make a movie that authentically takes you into that culture/those times. There’s so much richness to depict. I know you’ve imagined it.

    Thanks for this! I love learning from you!❤️ Love, Jenn

    Sent from my iPhone



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